Three of the World's Most Influential Empires: Ghana, Mali and Songhai
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Scholar-Griot: Rebecca Allyson Schnabel, M.S.
While knights rode around medieval Europe, the three great empires of West Africa prospered through unimaginable wealth. Ghana, Mali and Songhai controlled more gold and conducted more global trade than any European power at this time in history.
(Note: These historic empires are not the countries bearing the same names today. Also note: "CE" stands for "Common Era" and, like "AD," measures the years as counted by Christian scholars from the birth of Jesus.)
Ghana (Wagadu) – 300 CE -1235 CE
Traditionally known as Wagadu, the empire of Ghana was the first of the great Western African Empires. Situated further north than the modern-day Republic of Ghana, this was the smallest but longest surviving of these three historic domains. Located between two major rivers, the Niger and the Senegal, and bordered by the Sahara to the east, Ghana became the center of trade between the Arabs and Berbers in the northern regions and other African societies to the south. Bringing down salt from northern Africa, the Arabs and Berbers traded in Ghana for gold and ivory.
Ghana’s wealth grew through a double taxation system placed on their most valuable commodity, gold. People were taxed when bringing gold in and again when taking it out of the empire. Ghana also profited from the exportation of gold. Gold dust was the main currency of the time. Salt, however, is essential for human survival and rare the further south ones travels. As the desire and need for further trade grew, the nomadic Berbers created the western trans-Saharan caravan road. Thanks to this intricate highway system, Mediterranean traders could travel south to African strongholds like Ghana to exchange their salt for ivory and gold.
Leaders in Ghana, the Soninke, managed to keep their main source of gold, the Bambuk mines, a secret from the foreign traders. The Soninke kept the core of pure metal for themselves, accumulating great wealth, and left the unworked native gold to be marketed by the common people. Historians believe this international trade route mobilized hundreds of thousands of Africans, with the gold of Ghana reaching far away European and Asian countries.
The decay of this empires developed due to political turmoil from within and invaders who penetrated Ghana’s boarders and sacked their great cities. Scholars tell us there were invasions from the North by groups like the Almoravids, as well as by the short lived Sosso Kingdom. Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mali empire, also took advantage of the weakness of Ghana. Changing trading routes played a major role in its decline as well, as did civil wars due to religious differences. Many people in Ghana rejected Islam, preferring their traditional belief systems.
For further readings on the political systems and major leaders of Ghana see Historian Phillip Curtin’s work titled African History, the Cambridge History of Africa, and the UNESCO series on the General History of Africa (GHA).
Mali – 1230 CE – 1460 CE
Out of the ashes of Ghana came the next great civilization of its time –– and the richest kingdom ever to exist in world history — the Mali Empire. The roots of Mali start within ancient Ghana and the Malinke inhabitants of Kangaba, who served as middlemen trading gold to foreigners. Sundiata Keita rose up from his small kingdom of Kangaba, won the people’s support, conquered the last stronghold of Ancient Ghana, and began the reign of the Mali Empire. His successors expanded the empire to envelope the trading towns of Timbuktu and Gao and northern regions such as Taghaza, containing the highly valuable salt deposits. Mali swallowed up the wealth of Ghana and expanded on their practices with great success.
In 1312 CE, Musa the First or Mansa (meaning King or Emperor) Musa took the throne of Mali. He had an army of over 100,000 including a cavalry of more than 10,000 men. This army was a formidable fighting force, which enabled Mansa Musa to double the size of his kingdom. He is remembered most notably as the richest man who ever lived.
Ruling the gold center of the world, Mansa Musa’s wealth is incomprehensible. Being a devote Muslim, Mansa Musa traveled across the continent and brought back scholars and architects. These experts would establish universities and mosques. His 4,000 mile pilgrimage to Mecca gave him the chance to show his generosity to the common people. Mansa Musa’s gifts of gold to common people throughout his hajj destabilized the entire Egyptian economy. His great generosity literally put him on the map. In 1375 Mansa Musa was portrayed on the Catalan Atlas, one of the most important world maps of Medieval Europe. He was depicted with a golden scepter and crown, seated upon a golden throne.
However, Mansa Musa contributed far more to the world than gold. In an early form of globalization, Mansa Musa sent ambassadors across the continent of Africa. In Mali he cultivated "a place of splendor, wealth, and sophistication," attracting European and Middle Eastern travelers alike. Mansa Musa also modernized the great city of Timbuktu, building public schools, universities, and mosques. These include the legendary Djinguereber, the oldest mosque in Timbuktu, built in 1327, which still stands today. It holds one of the world’s oldest universities still in existence.
Unfortunately, emperors who followed would lose control of several smaller states within Mali, causing disunity, revolt, and the erosion of central power. As Mali rose from the fall of Ghana, so Songhai would assert its independent power over the region, emerging as the next great Western African Empire.
Songhai (also spelled Songhay) – 1460 CE – 1600 CE
While Mali quickly fell apart due to rampant disunity, a new king reigned. Sonni Ali ruled Songhai from 1464 to 1492. The Songhai kingdom was a small contemporary state of Ghana but later rose to defeat its Malian conquerers. The Songhai controlled the trade on the Niger river at the time of the Mali Empire. Through endless campaigns for expansion, Songhai became the largest of the three great empires of Western Africa –– and larger than all of continental Europe. The Songhai kingdom under Ali had the only naval fleet in West Africa. Ali was a military tyrant, also referred to as Sunni the Merciless, intolerant of any resistance to his rule. He is known for having starved the citizens of renowned trading town of Djenné into submission. These brutal tactics explain how the empire grew so large in such a short amount of time, also suggesting why the empire would last just as briefly. Sonni Ali is also known, however, for his wise economic decisions, reviving the ancient trade routes of empires past. Under his reign, vast commercial cities like Djenné, Gao, and Timbuktu became great centers of learning and scholarship.
Another proficient ruler of the Songhai Empire was Askia the Great. Known for encouraging international trade between Songhai and both Europe and Asia, Askia was also known for his religious tolerance. Like the rulers before him of both Songhai and Mali, Askia the Great was a devout Muslim. He opened religious schools and mosques across the empire. Oral histories relate that he did not force Islam on his people or punish those who chose to believe otherwise. Simultaneously orchestrating a strategy of expansion and consolidation, Askia the Great did not form his domain along traditional Islamic lines. He instead instituted a system of bureaucratic government unparalleled at this time in Western Africa. The Songhai Empire possessed some of Africa’s earliest organized taxation systems and trade regulations, continuing the ancestral trade routes of gold, ivory, and salt. Among Askia’s well-known economic and military accomplishments is his less well-known interest in and influence on the development of the field of astronomy.
By the 17th century satellite kingdoms along the borders began to rebel, and civil wars developed across the empire. The central power of the emperor also fell into constant strife as decedents fought over the right to rule. With the empire splintering apart from within, the neighboring region of Morocco decided to take advantage and launched an invasion. Despite having a tenth of the manpower, the Moroccan muskets far outperformed the traditional spears and arrows of the Songhai military. Moroccan leader Ahmad al-Mansur al-Dhahabi, known as ‘the Golden Conqueror,’ seized the Songhai treasure. He eventually absorbed all of the empire into a Moroccan province, dissolving the last of the Great Western African Empires.
Like many historic empires, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, did not survive into modern times. However, they were fundamental in shaping the world we live in today. Many European, Middle Eastern, and Asian strongholds would not have prospered without the trade from these African Empires. These African societies not only influenced the global economy, they also shaped the world's art, culture, and religion through international trade. These empires provided protection and resources to many great African and Muslim scholars, thereby supporting the development of science, philosophy, and other forms of knowledge across the globe.
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Cain, Áine. “Here's What It Was like to Be Mansa Musa, Thought to Be the Richest Person in History.” Business Insider. February 14, 2018.
Cartwright, Mark. “Songhai Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. July 26, 2019.
“Collapse: Mali and Songhai.” Collapse: Why do civilizations fall apart? Annenberg Foundation. 2016.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade (7th–14th Century Century).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2000.
Freado, Michael, director. The Great West African Empires. July 21, 2016.
McLean, John. “World Civilization.” Songhai | World Civilization. courses.
Morgan, Thad. “This 14th-Century African Emperor Remains the Richest Person in History.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 19 Mar. 2018
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Ghana: Historical West African Empire.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified July 9, 2019.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Mali: Historical Empire, Africa.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified January 23, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mali-historical-empire-Africa.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Songhai: Historical Empire, Africa.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified April 2, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Songhai-empire.
“The Story of Africa| BBC World Service.” BBC News. .
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Whistler, Hamza. “Kingdoms of the Grasslands – West African Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai Chapter 8 (2 of 4) - Ppt Video Online Download.” SlidePlayer. 2015.
Rebecca Schnabel is a graduate of UW-Milwaukee’s Masters of Public History and Museum Studies Certificate programs. She strives to cultivate a sense of community through engaging endeavors that connect history with the present, particularly through empowering the general public to apply their own agency while exploring exhibitions on social justice. Rebecca’s passion does not reside in one specific historical era or geographic location, but instead in illuminating underrepresented histories. Her specialties include interpretation, collections management, and exhibit design. To learn more, please visit her online portfolio: https://schnabe4.wixsite.com/schnabel-portfolio.
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